New Orleans Hornets: The Critical Improvement Each Young Player Must Make
The New Orleans Hornets are a young and talented team who can be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. With that said, there are some areas of improvement for some of the team's young players
The Hornets are in the middle of a rebuild that has seen the team completely change from the squad that took the court in December of last year. While making the playoffs this season could be a stretch, New Orleans has enough potential throughout their roster to make that goal a possibility.
That goal won't be achieved without some of its young players ironing out some of the kinks in their game. As with any young team, experience is the No. 1 thing these players will need. Of the projected starting five, only point guard Greivis Vasquez started more than 25 games with the team last season. Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu had 21 starts and shooting guard Eric Gordon made only nine.
Rounding out the starting lineup are big men Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez. Both of them are new to the team, with Davis having yet to start an NBA game.
The maturation of this young Hornets team will be an intriguing journey to watch over the next few years. In the meantime, I have pinpointed a critical aspect for all of the Hornets players under the age of 26.
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Area To Improve: Passing
If the Hornets are determined to make the project of turning Austin Rivers into an NBA point guard work, then the former Duke shooting guard is going to have to learn how to become a facilitator. Rivers averaged a little over two assists per game in his only season with the Blue Devils and played in only two Summer League games for the Hornets.
We can debate for hours whether making Rivers into a point guard instead of unleashing his natural scoring instincts as an off-guard is the right move. The fact of the matter is the team has decided the project is worth the risk.
In college, Rivers was asked to create his own shot and make his contributions via his dynamic offensive abilities. In the NBA, Rivers will have to focus less on his own touches and more on making those around him better. He'll need to develop chemistry with his teammates and get a sense of when and where they like to get the ball.
The short stint in Las Vegas didn't offer much of a sample size to get a feel for how Rivers will fare running point. However, there were some promising signs. He dished out five assists in his Summer League debut and only turned the ball over twice. In his second game, though, Rivers turned the ball over four times and had only three assists.
In that second game, Rivers reverted back to his old gunner ways and went 3-for-13 from the field, including 1-for-8 from behind the arc. Obviously, the Hornets would like to see more of the Rivers from the first game than the second.
It's going to be a rough transition at first, but a dedicated NBA player must learn to sacrifice his own numbers for the greater good of the team. The turnovers are to be expected from a young player learning a new position. Still, there were flashes of Rivers' passing ability that the rookie must improve upon to make this move to point guard work out.
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Area To Improve: Overall Strength
A player as raw as 19-year-old Anthony Davis has a lot of things to work on to become the NBA superstar his expectations would suggest he'll be. However, Davis got some valuable experience this summer playing on Team USA in the Olympics.
Davis didn't see a ton of action in London, but the time spent learning and playing alongside the league's best players helped the No. 1 overall pick with his learning curve. Davis showed off the rebounding skills and defensive acumen that made him a highly-touted prospect. He even flashed some touch on his jumper at times.
That being said, it's no secret that Davis is built like an Olsen twin. For all his athletic ability, Davis will need to add some bulk to his thin frame to handle the rigors of an NBA season. Guys with Davis' body tend to have trouble staying healthy. Injuries plagued Marcus Camby throughout his career, as well as Theo Ratliff. Both men were athletic shot-blockers with frail physiques.
The Hornets added center Robin Lopez in the offseason to keep Davis at his more natural power forward position and spare him the beating he'd take on the inside. Still, it is imperative that Davis improves his overall strength to keep his body from breaking down, as well as not allowing himself to be overpowered by bigger opponents.
It remains to be seen how much Davis can add to his frame without compromising the speed and athleticism that make him great. However, spending some time in the gym will be as beneficial to his career as the time spent in London over the summer.
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Area To Improve: Shooting
Since taking over the starting small forward job late last season, Al-Farouq Aminu has emerged as a defensive specialist. His ability as a stopper was on display in the Olympics as a member of the Nigerian team. At 6'9, with a tremendous wingspan and athleticism, Aminu can be the team's Bruce Bowen.
Still, you'd like for your starting small forward to be able to offer you something on the offensive end as well. Even elite defenders like Bowen and Ron Artest could put up some points if needed. The ability to sink the occasional corner three or wide-open jumper is a nice attribute to have, even if your main role is to shut down the opposing team's best player.
Aminu's offensive game is a work in progress. He's never averaged more than six points per game in his career, and he shoots about 30 percent from behind the arc. In his defense, Aminu only attempts around five shots per game. You'll also gladly trade his shortcomings on offense for what he brings defensively.
That being said, a few extra jumpers in practice couldn't hurt. Aminu will be only 22 in a couple of weeks, so he still has time to grow. If the team is benefiting from his superb defense now, imagine how vital Aminu will be if he blossoms into a two-way player.
I'm not asking him to become the second coming of Reggie Miller, but his offensive game should at least rival Artest's or Bowen's, right?
We know Aminu's length and athleticism will frustrate opponents on the defensive end. It's time to see what the other key piece in the Chris Paul trade can do with the ball in his hands.
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Area To Improve: Defense
Ryan Anderson won the NBA's Most Improved Player last season based mostly on his ability to shoot the deep ball. He raised his scoring average from 10.6 a game in 2010-11 to 16.1 a game last year while emerging as one of the game's best shooting big men. Now in New Orleans, Anderson will be counted on to bring that offensive spark to a Hornets team in desperate need of shooters.
That being said, a guy who stands 6'10 should be able to notch at least 40 blocks in a single season. Anderson's career best for blocks in one year is 38, which came in 2010-11 with the Magic. He averages less than a block per game for his career.
Granted, Anderson is a small forward in a power forward's body, and he's more of a long-range specialist than a shot-blocker. However, his rebounding numbers suggest he isn't allergic to being in the paint. A guy with his size should be able to contest a few shots.
Even if Anderson spends most of his time in New Orleans at small forward, his length should give him an advantage over smaller opponents. The Hornets may have Anthony Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu to provide the team defense, but it's not asking too much to ask for some D from one of its best big men.
Anderson admitted his defensive game needs work when asked about it following a game against the Raptors back in January. "For me, I know I can get a lot better on the defensive end," Anderson said. "The thing is, night-in and night-out these are NBA players. They are going to score," he continued.
That may be true, but Anderson could at least hinder NBA players from scoring. By being at least adequate on defense, Anderson could see more minutes in crunch-time. He'll have a tough time wrestling away minutes from Davis and Aminu at the forward spots. However, if he gets better on defense, Anderson can provide the consistent offense that those two can't. It may also allow New Orleans to play all three at the same time.
It remains to be seen what Anderson's role will be with the team. With the starting five pretty much set, Anderson will probably be the team's sixth man. His offensive game makes him a dark horse for the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. If he can add some defense to his game, Anderson could have another trophy in his case.
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Area To Improve: Shooting
Once upon a time, Xavier Henry was a lottery pick with a reputation at Kansas for being a sharpshooter. In his only season with the Jayhawks, he shot just under 42 percent from behind the arc and broke a couple freshman scoring records.
That shooting touch mysteriously disappeared in the pros. In his only season with Memphis, Henry shot a putrid 12 percent from three. That led the Grizzlies to cutting the cord on Henry and shipping him to New Orleans before he even turned 21.
Granted, once he joined the Hornets, Henry shot 41% from the three-point line. However, he only had 17 attempts.
There are probably other areas Henry could work on to become a viable option off the bench for New Orleans. Still, if you had a reputation for being an excellent shooter in college, the same should hold true in the pros. Henry is still young enough to develop into a reliable scorer, but he needs to regain the shooting touch that made him promising in the first place.
With guys like Austin Rivers, Roger Mason, and Darius Miller in the fold, the second unit is going to be crowded on the wing. That means minutes will be tough to come by for Henry if he doesn't show some improvement in his jumper. Both Mason and Rivers are accomplished shooters.
Even if Rivers moves into the starting lineup as the team's new point guard, Henry is going to have to make strides to make this rotation. It starts with reverting back to the Xavier Henry that looked like a three-point marksman in college.
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Area To Improve: Post Scoring
Robin Lopez possesses a lot of qualities you'd like to have in an adequate young center. He's tenacious on the glass and hustles for rebounds and loose balls. He's aggressive on both ends of the court and can block shots in a pinch. He also has good speed and agility for a big man. Those features were on display in the little bit of time he had in Phoenix.
However, for all those positives, there's one big negative. Lopez isn't very skilled when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. Of the Lopez brothers, all of the offensive acumen seemed to have gone to Brook while Robin has established himself as a poor man's Anderson Varajao.
The Hornets don't need Lopez to be an offensive juggernaut in the paint. Still, it would benefit New Orleans and Lopez in the long run if Robin could develop a few go-to moves on offense to give the team an option in the post.
Anthony Davis will be the team's star in the paint but he doesn't have the frame or strength to throw his body into a defender and score in the paint. Davis' game for now will rely mostly on his athleticism and his sneaky jumper.
Lopez, meanwhile, has the body to be a factor with his back to the basket. He just hasn't developed the touch. At 24, there's still time for Lopez to add some options to his repertoire. He never got a real shot to be a viable starting center in Phoenix once Marcin Gortat came to town. Now, he has a second chance in New Orleans.
The Hornets should work closely with Lopez. They should help him develop a baby hook or a turnaround jumper. He may not be the team's top option inside but he could become a part of this team's future with some work on the offensive end.
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Area To Improve: Durability
Injuries are a part of any sport. They are going to happen. Some players are more fortunate in avoiding the injury bug than others. Few players are less fortunate when it comes to dodging injuries than Eric Gordon.
Last season should have been the year Gordon put it all together and became the star he's expected to become. As the centerpiece in the Chris Paul trade and in a contract year, Gordon should have taken charge as the new face of the franchise and put himself in the conversation of the league's best shooting guards.
Instead, Gordon wrecked his knee and played in only nine games in his first season with the Hornets. Despite his reputation for being injury-prone, New Orleans matched the four-year, $58 million offer Phoenix offered Gordon over the summer.
Along with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, Gordon is being asked to change the fortunes of a franchise that has a new outlook under new owner Tom Benson. The key to that is Gordon actually being able to get on the court.
Granted, there's no concrete way to completely avoid getting hurt. If there was, everyone would do it. Still, the only aspect of Gordon's game that needs work is his durability. He's a talented scorer with a remarkable shooting touch, but he's played more than 62 games once in his four-year career.
Gordon needs to stay healthy to not only help lead this team, but to justify the lofty contract he received in the offseason. History is littered with stories of franchises burned by offering big contracts to players who spent more time on a trainer's table than a basketball court. Just ask the Washington Wizards about the risk of paying an oft-injured star after the contract they handed Gilbert Arenas a few years ago.
The expectations for Gordon haven't changed. He will be counted on to put this team on his shoulders on a nightly basis until Davis is ready to help carry the load. It is imperative that he finds a way to shake the injury bug and stay on the court. Gordon averaged 20.6 points per game last year. Let's see what he can do when he plays more than nine games.
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Area To Improve: Consistency
There are a number of different things Greivis Vasquez needs to work on now that he finally gets to begin the season as the starting point guard.
For starters, Vasquez needs to cut down turnovers. While he dished out more assists than turnovers on average per game, there will still quite a few games where Vasquez got a bit wild with the basketball. He could also work to be a better shooter. He shot 32 percent from behind the arc last season.
The big thing, however, is consistency. There were games where Vasquez showed his offensive abilities and put up solid scoring numbers, only to disappear on the offensive end the next week. For instance, Vasquez started off January with four games scoring in double digits. In the next four, he scored more than six points once.
With Austin Rivers breathing down his neck for the starting point guard job, it's up to Vasquez to make strides in his development and Rivers on the bench. At 6'6 with surprisingly good court vision, Vasquez could be a huge mismatch for opposing point guards.
He doesn't have the qualities to be a star like Rivers does, but he could be a solid starting point guard with some fine-tuning to his game. Improving as a shooter will benefit him greatly as most point guards aren't tall enough to disrupt a big guard like Vasquez. If he can cut down on turning the ball over, it may keep the team from handing the job over to Rivers so soon.
If Vasquez proves to be a steady hand and puts up good numbers on a more consistent basis, the Hornets may have stumbled upon one of the game's most underrated point guards.
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Area To Improve: Everything
It's hard to pinpoint an exact area Lance Thomas needs to work on. His game is better suited on the interior as a power forward but he's undersized at 6'8 and 225 pounds. He doesn't have the skills on the perimeter to get any serious consideration at small forward.
Making matters worse for the former Blue Devil, the Hornets bench is pretty crowded. Jason Smith and Ryan Anderson are the second unit's two top big men. Xavier Henry and rookie Darius Miller figure to work themselves into the equation at small forward. It's going to take a rash of injuries and some serious improvement for Thomas to get decent playing time.
For his part, Thomas hustled his way onto the team with an excellent performance in the Summer League. He led all Hornets in scoring and rebounding, averaging 14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
However, that was the Summer League. In the regular season against top flight competition, Thomas is going to be hard-pressed to replicate those numbers or even come close to half of his Vegas production. There are too many factors standing in his way.
The best thing for Thomas to do is settle on a position and work tirelessly to be a factor at that spot. If it's power forward, Thomas needs to bulk up to handle life in the paint against NBA big men. If it's small forward, he should work on developing his jumper and being a factor in the mid-range game. He should also get better as a defender.
Thomas showed some flashes of brilliance in spurts last season and his work in Vegas can't be overlooked. He's a project with a long road ahead. He can't help being undersized and he can't help that the Hornets are so rich with young talent. He can become less of a 'tweener and work harder towards finding a more defined role.
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Area To Improve: Aggressiveness
Darius Miller may not develop into much more than a decent role player in the pros. At Kentucky, Miller settled into being more of a contributor and letting the bigger-named guys on the roster get all of the shine.
The same will hold true for Miller in the NBA unless he becomes more aggressive. Miller has a good jumper and is a very capable defender. However, it would benefit Miller to use his 6'7, 240-pound body to better use and attack the rim more often.
On a team loaded with young players desperate to make a name for themselves, Miller isn't going to separate himself from the pack by waiting for the offense to come to him. He could have a decent career as a bench player who feasts off open 15-foot jumpers but that's not going to happen on this team.
The Hornets already have guys like Austin Rivers, Ryan Anderson and Xavier Henry on their second unit to start the season. Those guys aren't to be afraid to attack the rim and show what they can do on the offensive end. Miller needs to follow their lead. He doesn't have great athleticism but he has a big body and good size.
New Orleans doesn't need Miller to be a star, but Miller needs to flash star potential to stand out on a crowded depth chart. By attacking the basket, he can get to the line more often where he was an 80% free throw shooter in college. Miller has the talent to be a solid role player but he needs to have the intensity.
With increased aggressiveness, Miller could be a force on both ends of the court and build a reputation as being more than just a guy who sits back and lets others get the credit.